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Rostraver Marine refused to abandon buddies in a bloody, final battle in Korea

| Saturday, July 27, 2013, 3:38 p.m.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Korean War veteran Bob Vertacnik in his Rostraver home on Friday, July 26, 2013.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Bob Vertacnik’s heroism during the Korean War earned him two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts, which he displays on Friday, July 26, 2013 in his Rostraver home.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Detail of several of Korean War veteran Bob Vertacnik's medals, including two bronze stars and purple hearts, photographed on July 26, 2013 in his home near West Newton.

Bob Vertacnik could have avoided one of the final bloody battles of the Korean War, but he was stubborn.

He might have avoided even shipping out to Korea, but he was stubborn.

Vertacnik, 83, of Rostraver fought through multiple injuries and against medical orders in a chaotic and deadly battle for Hill 119, known as Boulder City, in the last days before the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.

Vertacnik said fighting was to stop at 10 p.m. the day before the peace agreement would be signed.

“The whole sky was lighting up with these white flares. It was strange,” he recalled. “All this blood and guts, and all of a sudden it's done.”

It's “unbelievable” that was 60 years ago, he said.

“You realize you're dealing with your own mortality now,” Vertacnik said. Some of his military buddies have died, and others are in wheelchairs, he said.

But Vertacnik, who said he's considering attending a reunion this fall in Milwaukee, is still sharp-witted and lively.

He was so determined to join the Marines that he went to enlist twice: He was rejected at 17 because of medical complications from a ruptured appendix, but was accepted two years later.

When the war broke out in 1950, the Marines “were taking anybody that was warm,” so he traveled to Pittsburgh to the old postal building on Smithfield Street and joined the Corps.

Vertacnik trained as a field radio operator, and officers wanted to send him to Chicago for more training. But he was determined to get to Korea.

Vertacnik said that he'd go to his superior each month to volunteer for the replacement draft so he could join the fighting, but it wasn't until he persuaded the officer to let him switch positions with a Marine who did not want to deploy that he received overseas orders.

He arrived in Korea on Nov. 10, 1952, but it was the Boulder City fighting in July 1953 that sticks with him.

Two key outposts had been taken by opposing forces, leaving Boulder City — which offered views of American supply routes and Seoul — isolated.

“Boulder City became the most important piece of real estate in Korea,” Vertacnik said.

His unit, George Company, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, led a counterattack to protect Boulder City, and on July 20, 1953 —his 23rd birthday — Vertacnik was cut by shrapnel on his right wrist and knee.

He was tagged to be evacuated for medical treatment, but he instead rejoined his unit and helped pick off Chinese soldiers with a machine gun.

Two days later, with a suspected infection in his wrist and hand, Vertacnik said, he again walked away from a hospital while the doctor was treating other patients. He hitched a ride back to his unit — and was again hit by shrapnel.

On July 24, 1953, limping with his knee taped up, Vertacnik volunteered to run in heavy rain and mud to bring back three Marines who couldn't be reached by radio.

“I'm running toward the Chinese line. I don't know how I made it,” he said.

His sleeve was damaged by bullets, but he and the other three Marines made it back safely.

When another wave of fighting started, Vertacnik began throwing grenades. Once his weapon was empty, he began to engage in hand-to-hand combat.

He ended up face down in the mud with a concussion.

Even after that, Vertacnik refused to quit.

He got up and worked through the night carrying wounded troops to the first-aid station and the evacuation point.

“You're running on empty. You really have to fight. ... It seems like your legs won't move,” he said.

Vertacnik, who left the Marines in October 1954 as a sergeant, was awarded two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts.

In 1956, he married Josephine, whom he met during a street fair in Donora. The two had been married for 38 years when she passed away in 1994 at age 61.

The couple had two sons and two daughters: Bob, Mary Jo, Leanne and Eric.

After the service, Vertacnik worked for 32 years in purchasing at Westinghouse in Youngwood. He retired in 1991.

While there, he earned two associate degrees in 1978 from the newly founded Westmoreland County Community College. He later transferred to California University of Pennsylvania to complete a bachelor's degree in social science, he said.

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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